Being a Better Writer: Static Backdrop

You ever watch an old movie? Not like black-and-white, pre-talkies era, but forties or fifties-era flick. You know, color, but early color, surprisingly regular inclination to break into song and dance?

It was a thing.

Anyway, if you’ve ever sat down and watched one of these older flicks with friends, family, or even on your lonesome, it’s likely that at some point during the runtime of the film, a comment similar to the following was made:

Hey, you! Don’t walk into the backdrop!

For those of you among my readers that are younger, or perhaps haven’t watched a lot of older movies, this comment comes about because in older films, they didn’t have the amazing special effects we have today, where different scenes can be easily stitched together with computer composites and the like. No, in the old days there were much more difficult tricks for creating certain shots. If you wanted to have your characters come around a road and into view of an ancient city, for example, you couldn’t just throw together some awesome CGI and call it a day. That just wasn’t an option. Nor was building a real “fake” ancient city from scratch (though a few over-the-top productions did their best to get close).

No, what these old movies had to do was find another solution. A popular one was using a model (if you’ve ever seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a certain line may be coming to mind right now lampshading this effect). The studio crew would make a detailed model replica of the ancient city, and trick photography would be used to place the actors in front of it at an angle that made everything line up correctly (or they’d use an early form of “green screen,” there were many methods of pulling this trick off).

Of course, a model costs money. And so for many, a much cheaper, easier solution was used, one which had served stage plays for centuries: the painted backdrop.

It was pretty easy to do. Get a large cloth and a bunch of painters, describe the scene and the angle at which it’ll be shot, and then hang it in the back of the scene. Have your actors walk around in front of it and act as if it’s the real deal, and boom, problem solved.

Well, almost. As you can imagine, it’s usually pretty obvious to the audience what the backdrop is. Any number of little details can set it off—and the lower the film’s budget, the more likely that you’ll notice them. The background rippling in some unseen breeze, for example, is a little telling. Or the fact that much of the film is three-dimensional right up until a certain point where everything becomes slightly flat. Or maybe it’s that the lighting isn’t right, and you can tell that the character is about to run into a “background”. It can even be something as simple as a backdrop of a bustling city that is—often without comment—completely stationary or suffering from sudden, jarring movements.

Now, my point here isn’t to disparage old films. They did what they could with what they had … even if sometimes it made it look like an actor who was “riding off into the sunset” was about to slam headfirst into it.

So then, some of you may be wondering, where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with my writing? Well, let me tell you a little story about this weekend.

So this weekend I was browsing r/books on Reddit. I do this from time to time, usually checking in every few days to see what the latest scuttlebutt is or read the latest Chicken Little stories about how ebooks are failing or genre literature is failing or whatever. So … personal amusement, really. And this weekend, there was a discussion going about tropes that really set you off that authors kept using anyway.

As you can imagine, a lot of romance tropes topped the list (I’m not kidding, mention a classic one like “bad boy’s are awesome” and it was there). And some classic Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu stuff came up as well, along with the ever-popular “chosen one” trope. I had some good fun reading through what was offered and then decided to contribute one of my own pet peeves: the static, unchanging world.

Yeah, I really don’t like this one. Fantasy worlds that are forever trapped in a pseudo-medieval tech base. Worlds that don’t seem to react or care about the protagonists doings outside of maybe a celebration or two. Stories where world-changing technology/magic is discovered by the antagonist/protagonist/deus-ex-machina and then just completely ignored in favor of the status quo.

In other words, worlds where the world is little more than a painted backdrop for the protagonists, a little picture in the semblance of life with glass over it that prevents it from ever changing or even reacting to the goings on of the primary characters.

You might be seeing where I’m going with things today by this point, but my story isn’t finished. To my surprise, someone else chimed in (well, actually a lot of people did, but this comment stood out to me) declaring that they felt it was this way because so many—and here I’ll use my own words—novice writers believe that the world is unimportant to the story as a whole. They pointed me towards r/writing, which is a thread dedicated to writing advice, where they said that one of the most common bits of highly upvoted advice was that a story should “only have as much worldbuilding as the story needs.” Which unfortunately seems to, by many there, have been taken to mean “don’t focus on the world, just focus on plot and characters” or “your world isn’t nearly as important as your characters and your plot, so don’t worry about it.”

Oh. Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. I’d never really spent time on /writing (mostly because my checks of it showed that most of the stuff being posted was pretty basic), but hearing that this sort of claptrap was being peddled sent my mind reeling. And that, readers, is how I came to a decision on today’s topic. If young writers out there are coming to the conclusion that they can just ignore the world and setting of their story in favor of their characters and plot … well, I have to be up front about it. That’s not correct.

Let’s talk about why for a minute. Why is it so bad to let the world take a backseat?

There are a couple of reasons. First, you end up with the problem of the “painted backdrop.” Say you take r/writing’s (anecdotal) advice and ignore your world, the way it works, etc, and just come up with some standard fantasy fare to fill in the gaps.

Well, here’s your first problem: Nothing about your world is unique. It’s actually the opposite. See, when you just sort of take the standard fantasy trimmings and use them to shore up your worldbuilding, what you’re doing is effectively making your setting cookie-cutter. Yes, even if you change the names a little bit or come up with one little twist, it’s still the same fantasy fare that everyone else has been reading about for decades now. Which means that in the mind of your reader, it’s forgettable.

Actually, it’s worse. It’s also forgettable in your mind. When you’re using generic fantasy filler as stopgap material so you don’t have to worldbuild, you’re just as likely to let it sink to the back of your mind as everyone else. The result is that the world ends up being just like those painted backdrops in old movies: Flat. No depth. No gradients. No subtlety.

We don’t want that. Not at all. But this is just the start of the problems not doing proper-worldbuilding can bring.

For example, one fantasy novel I read did exactly what we’re talking about here, setting the world in the back and giving it generic fantasy flair while focusing on the characters and plot. Just like the response to my comment suggested. And it really came back to bite it in the end.

Why? Because the world and the characters didn’t interact. The world was a static place. Remember how I talked about how these old painted backdrops didn’t move (well, couldn’t really, they were paintings, after all), and so you would get these still, unmoving images of “busy” cities? Well, the characters would act as if they were moving, even when they weren’t, and the effect was, well … disconcerting. And yes, some films definitely lampshaded this, or took the meta/fourth wall approach (watch the Road to [insert place here] movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby sometime), because, let’s face it, it was jarring.

Books can suffer from the same problem. This book I mentioned? Well, it pulled a pretty big one. The protagonist swooped in and “saved the day” by saving the princess (I don’t really recall all the details, but that was the gist of it, a damsel in distress) … and the kingdom celebrated.

When they totally shouldn’t have been. Again, I don’t recall the details, but what the protagonist did to save the princess by the books rules kicked off a war with their neighbor.

Again, I don’t remember the details. I just remember getting to the protagonists solution and having my jaw drop because while it was a “good” idea for saving the day, it was one that completely ignored what little of the world at large the book had established.

See, this is why you don’t ignore your world. Your characters may just end up riding full speed into the backdrop with a crash that brings the whole set down. The world doesn’t react to the characters. Doesn’t even interact with them. And that’s just not real. At all. It’s something that will stretch most reader’s suspension of disbelief until it snaps.

Let’s bring up one more flaw letting the world take a backseat can give you. I’ve used the word “static” several times to talk about the presentation of the world, mostly in relation to the characters, but it can go a different direction as well. I once picked up a book that was so full of poorly-used cliches I didn’t get more than 15% through it. It was horrid. Among the many, many problems it had, however, was that in using a generic fantasy world as filler for its worldbuilding, it left the reader with … well, let me just explain it. I came to a chapter where the characters were gathering together for an annual competition between the three nations of the book, using this as an excuse to dump a whole lot of exposition on the reader. When out of nowhere, I got this wonderful little tidbit: that these three nations have stood, unchanging and identical, for over one thousand years.

Let me clarify. For one thousand years, nothing had changed. No new technology had developed. No one had explored. No one had encountered any other nations. No one had argued with anyone else over territory. The population had stayed the same number of people. Food production had stayed the same.

Sound like that painted picture of the city that never moves? Yes, except this was the entire world.

Suspension of disbelief shattered. Because a real place doesn’t work like that. Sands, even a strange, different fantasy world couldn’t work like that without some serious issues. The only way for it to work, in fact, would be for something crazy to be enforcing it. Which … wasn’t happening here. The author just hadn’t thought things through.

All right, I’m two thousand words into today’s post, and I think by now you’ve gotten the gist of the sort of problems not giving worldbuilding its due can create. So if you don’t want your characters to crash full force into the background … what can you do?

First of all, you can develop your world. If it helps, think of your world like a character in your story. A character that’s going to interact with every other character, every event, and every moment of your story.

It’s true. Think of one of your protagonists. Now think about where they grew up. How is that home going to influence their interactions with other characters? With the world at large? Are they from the classic small farming village out in the boonies? How will that affect their going to the big city? Or is it the other way around?

Speaking of which, why is there a big city where there is one? Why is there a small farming village? Pointless questions? No, actually. That small farming town might be there because there’s a nearby source of water that makes it the perfect location for growing something.

Now, will any of this be important to the plot? Well, maybe,  maybe not. But it’s certainly going to be important to your characters.

For an example, let’s look at a story—rather, a series of stories that did this well: The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher.

The Codex Alera series has a very well-realized world, one that in turn affects the characters and their actions, attitudes, and plans. For example, the main character comes from a smaller steadholt (or collection of settlements) on the eastern side of the empire, where he works as a farmhand dealing with sheep, one of the main exports of their little side of things.

Unimportant detail? No, not at all. Throughout the first few books, actually, the character calls upon skills he specifically learned as a shepherd. The world that the character grew up in has left its imprint upon him. You can’t do this very well with a generic backdrop.

Even better, the world continues to impact the protagonist, as well as be impacted by them. Events from the first book not only cause the main character to grow and change, but also the world around him. This makes the world feel like a real place, one that not only influences the characters it contains, but also can be influenced and changed in return by those same characters.

Again, this goes back to what I said earlier about treating the world like a character in its own right. Characters grow and change over time, so will your world.  Your characters can (and likely will) make choices that impact your world. Your world will have occurrences that can in turn affect the characters. Just like the actions of any other character can affect another.

Right. By now some of you may be nodding, but at the same time there may be a few of you who’re saying “But I don’t write Epics. Why can’t I just focus on character and plot and leave the world in the backseat?”

Well, because that expression, if it deserves to be called that, this idea that you should focus on plot and character first and only work on what plot you feel you need, is wrong.

Let me explain this for a minute. Think of a … well, let’s go with something simple. A water pump. You know, the old fashioned kind you’d find on the side of an old house that you pump by hand?

Right, so to the average eye, all you need to “know” about the water pump is that you move the handle and water comes out. That’s all that matters, right?

Well, sure, if you just want a drink of water. But what if you want to build one? How many other moving parts are there that come together to make the pump work? What else does it need in order for water to come out of the end when you move the handle?

See the analogy here? Your reader may not need to know most of the details of the world … but you certainly will if you’re going to build it and present a finished product that holds up. Your reader will be concerned with the handle and the water (the characters and the plot, in either order, take your pic), but all those other bits and pieces need to be in (mostly) the right place so that everything works.

If it’s not, what happens is that the reader primes the pump, pushes the handle down … and something happens that doesn’t make sense. Maybe the handle doesn’t move, but water comes out anyway, or maybe the handle moves, but the water comes out of the wrong place. Point being, the reader knows something is wrong, even if they don’t know what. They just know something is out of place and that the author, whose job it was to put everything together properly, skipped a few steps somewhere along the way.

That said, the reader also doesn’t care how each of those little pieces came to be, and why they had to go in a particular spot—just that each piece does its job properly. So while you need to know all of this information about your world and make sure that it’s there, you also don’t want to put too much of a focus on it.

See, and that’s where there’s a grain of truth to that idea that the world should take a backseat to the plot and characters. That you should “only write as much as you need.” That’s still wrong, but you know what’s a better way to put it?

Only write as much of the world as the reader needs.

And you, the author? You are not the reader. And that’s where those who run with the misinformed adage go wrong: They’re assuming that since the reader doesn’t need to know something, they don’t need to know it. And that kind of thinking will get you into all kinds of trouble and lead you to create the flat, static world that your characters will bounce off of like a ball off of a tennis court. No, the reader doesn’t need to know all the details … But you do, so that you can pick the ones that make everything fit together and put them in the right place so that everything reads smoothly. And when you’ve done this properly, those readers that go ahead and take the extra step of putting two and two together won’t find the backdrop falling down over the characters and exposing a bunch of wiring and duct-tape elements jury-rigged together—or worse, a blank, white nothingness.

So when you sit down to brainstorm and worldbuild your next work, give the world you’re creating the due effort. Don’t throw together a flat, static backdrop that’s going to come crashing to the ground the moment something in the story (or the reader) tugs at it too hard. Create something with depth and character.

Like I said, the world is as much a “character” in your story as your ordinary characters. It will change and adapt as the story moves along, progressing just like anything else. It will influence your characters and your plot, sometimes even make decisions for them or put them on new paths.

But it will never do any of this if it’s nothing more than a static picture under glass. Like your characters, your world needs to be three-dimensional, with weight and personality.

One last little note to mention. Some of you might be wondering “Hey, how do I do that?”

Well, I’ve got an answer, though you might not like it. Go out an learn some history. Learn about the world. See how cultures and civilizations grew and changed. Learn about them.

That way, when you sit down to build your own world, you’ll have clues as to how things will fit together, and you can present a much more real  “picture.”

Are you going to create the most accurate portrayal ever? Well, you can, but depending on your genre, more than likely rather than needing a panoramic shot, you’ll be able to get by just fine with a nicely detailed model. But that model will be a lot better than a flat, unchanging backdrop. It’ll be dynamic. It’ll have weight. And your characters will be able to interact with it.

Don’t present your readers with a flat painting and pretend it’s a sculpture. Do the work, make the effort. Your story will thank you for it.

Good luck, now get writing!


3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Static Backdrop

  1. Spot on. I have history conversations with my 8 year old, stuff that he knows now because I drill it into him: “What is the primary feature for every single city that exists in history?” Answer: “Water. Fresh water.” Yep. Stuff gets built on waterways because that provides water to drink, for transportation, for irrigation. And the transportation is for goods, and the goods are traded because not everything comes from one place, you gotta trade to get stuff, because maybe you don’t have an iron mine, but those guys over there do, but they don’t have grain, and you have grain, and so on. If that’s going on in the background, it makes it all live.

    I was studying economics of Elizabethan times in England, and entire communities in the north of England starved because they didn’t have grain, grain that was exported from England to the Low Countries because merchants could transport it easily, because they were paid more for it, and because they simply didn’t know those people were starving in Northumberland (and probably didn’t have the coin to pay for the relief, anyway. Too bad for them). Economics in places where news travels slowly can mean that simple events happen that trigger cascade events and disasters simply because nobody can communicate fast enough to get relief.

    Anyway, well-written post, thanks for filling out this topic!


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